Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 24
Stories
Under the Shield
by Stephen Kotowych
Old Flat Foot
by Ross Willard
Whiteface Part I
by Jared Oliver Adams
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Floating Statue
by David Lubar
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
Shadows in Flight - Chapter 1
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

What Happened at Blessing Creek
    by Naomi Kritzer

What Happened at Blessing Creek
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

We circled our wagons at night so Reverend Dawson's magic could protect us. The Reverend said it was the power of prayer, but Papa scoffed at that.

"He's a magician, and a good one," Papa said. "Or we wouldn't've brought him along in the first place."

My sister Adeline liked to pretend Papa had said something shocking, but I knew he was right. I could smell the magic on the Reverend. I could hear it humming when he said the last words of the nightly blessing that kept out trouble -- dragons, wolves, fevers, Indians.

Adeline and I were twins, but not the sort who looked alike. She was the pretty one, with plump pink cheeks and hair the color of summer butter. My mother said I was the clever one, but she didn't really believe it. I wasn't pretty, though, so I suppose she thought it would be a consolation if people thought me clever.

"Papa's right, you know," I told Adeline one night. "I can smell the magic even now." It smelled like burnt bread, and I could hear it crackle into place beyond our wagons.

"Don't talk about your second sight, Hattie," Adeline said. "It's not ladylike. You know what Mother says."

Mother said that every man wished he'd had a witch for a mother, but no one wanted one as a wife. Witches were useful to have in the family. Sometimes they could keep a child from dying of a fever, or banish mice from your grain store. But that didn't mean anyone wanted to marry one.

"So why would you want a witch as a husband?" I muttered, half to myself.

"He's not a witch. He is a minister of the gospel."

"Hush, girls," Mother said. We were supposed to be going to sleep, even though the grownups would be talking by the fire for hours yet. We fell silent for a few minutes.

"Anyway, that was back east they said no one wanted to marry a witch," I said. "We're going west. Things could be different. There are dangers here."

"Not so long as we stay close to the Reverend," Adeline said.

"Do you think everyone who comes west wants to live in a town? Maybe I'll meet a man who wants to strike out on his own."

"No man wants to be protected by his wife. Anyway, do you think you could really make a good blessing? Just because you can smell the magic doesn't mean you can do it."

"Girls. I don't want to tell you again."

This time I kept my peace, and after a few minutes I heard Adeline's breathing turn quiet and steady. I stared up at the stars, still wide awake. Out in the distance, somewhere in the darkness of the prairie, I heard a long, high-pitched cry, and then an answering cry, further away. I sat up and looked; my mother was by the fire. "You're perfectly safe, Hattie," she said.

"What was that?" I asked. We'd heard wolves howling a few nights ago. This was different.

"Probably a dragon."

"Do you think we'll see a dragon?" I asked.

"Mercy, I hope not."

"Is it true the Indians ride them?"

"I shouldn't think so. Dragons are bigger than houses and wilder than wolves."

"Do you think we'll see Indians?"

"Oh, I don't think so."

"But isn't this Indian country?"

"They'll move further west," she said. "They'll have to, now that white folks are coming."

I thought about that a moment and then asked, "Will they be angry about having to move?"

"That's why we brought the Reverend."

"What happens when they get all the way west? There's an ocean, they can't keep going forever."

"Go to sleep, Hattie," she said again, and this time she used a voice like she meant it.

We were heading into Kansas territory. Papa said the Indians here were called the Osage, and they were a race of giants, with the shortest of their men at least as tall as Papa. Joe Franklin, one of the men traveling with us, said they ate human flesh, and then laughed, showing his missing front teeth. Mother frowned at him, and he tipped his hat to her and rode off to the other end of the wagon train.

When we camped each night, before the Reverend blessed our circle, it was my job to fetch water. That evening, I thought about what Adeline had said, and decided to see if I could do a blessing, too. Standing in the creek bottom, I closed my eyes and stretched out my arms. "May the Lord bless the land I stand on," I intoned, trying to talk like the Reverend. "Lord, let us feed on Your truth. Send Your sacred blood to purify us and strengthen us and send Angels of War to guard us with their fiery swords --"

"Nice try, Miss Cartwright." My eyes flew open; it was Joe Franklin. "You trying to protect yourself from anyone in specific?" He grinned at me. "I didn't think I'd scared you that bad today."

I turned my back on him, my ears burning. I could feel the magic humming around me; it had risen, but it hadn't really done anything. "I'm not scared."

"No?"

In truth, Joe Franklin made me nervous. He liked to tell stories that weren't proper, like the one about how he'd had his teeth knocked out in a brawl. I started back up the path with my bucket. "Excuse me," I said, since he was blocking the path.

He stepped out the way, still grinning. "I could carry that for you," he offered.

"No, thank you, I am perfectly capable of carrying it myself."

"Suit yourself."

Back at the camp, Papa and Reverend Dawson had their heads together over some papers. They talked through the evening -- Mother had Adeline bring Papa his dinner -- and I wasn't surprised when we didn't go anywhere come morning. The men rode out, and Mother told me they'd decided we'd come far enough west and were looking to find the best place for our town. We camped there for two days, while they thought about it, and finally on the third day they moved us a half-mile up the creek, and Reverend Dawson blessed the new town. They dug a hole, and he buried a bag he'd brought with him from the east, and all the men helped fill in the hole, a little at a time. Then above the hole they put a sign saying town of blessing.

Papa took us out riding that afternoon. The creek led up to a river not too far away, with trees we could cut to build our houses. The prairie stretched wide around us; it would be easy to get lost here, down in the grass.

"This is an ugly place," Adeline said. "I miss Ohio."

"This land will never love us," Papa said, patting her on the arm. "Not like it loves the Indians. But we'll teach it to serve us well enough. We've got seeds, and livestock, and there's good hunting here -- even those dragons! Not that you'd want to eat a dragon, but think how little dragonskin goes into a pair of dragon leather boots, and think how much those cost."

Adeline sniffed. "Yes, but what good will that money do us here? There's nowhere to spend it!"

"Oh, that's true now. But more wagon trains are on their way. And once Blessing is up and running, even more people will come. It'll be a real town soon enough, and we won't have the troubles we had in Ohio." Papa had been in business in Ohio -- well, really, he'd been in several businesses in Ohio. None of them lasted very long. "Things will be grand here," Papa said. "You'll see."

Adeline pouted a bit more. I looked out at the prairie again, and pointed to a thin line of smoke rising up from the prairie that stretched west from Blessing. "What's that?"

There was an encampment of Osage Indians less than two miles from Blessing. Papa told Mother they hadn't realized that, when they picked this spot for the town. The Osage might have been off hunting, so our men saw no smoke from their fires when they were scouting.

But it was too late to move the town now. They'd buried the relics and put up the sign; they didn't have another bag. Mother was coldly furious, and Adeline wept in the wagon, saying she was frightened.

Adeline had always been made of softer stuff than I. When we were little and a boy at school left a snake on the desk Adeline and I shared, she screamed and ran away. I was the one who grabbed the snake by its tail and dropped it down the shirt of the boy who'd left it for us. Still, she hadn't ever been a fainting hysteric. The longer we stayed, the jumpier she got.

"What does the Reverend's magic smell like, Hattie?" she asked one night as we were going to bed.

"I thought you didn't want me talking about it."

"Does it smell different than it used to?" she asked.

It did, actually. "You can smell it?" I said, surprised.

"No!" she said. "Of course not! It's just --"

"You can smell it," I said.

"What if he led us here on purpose?" Adeline said. "What if he's working with the Indians, what if it's a trap?"

"Don't be ridiculous," I said, and pulled the covers over my head. She didn't say anything more, but I heard her inhale a long breath, then another, like she was trying to smell the magic.

A week passed. I held my tongue and fetched water and carried it around to the men as they worked. Adeline was supposed to help, but she said it was too frightening to go down to the creek bottom, so it all fell on me. Fortunately, Joe Franklin was busy cutting wood, so I didn't run into him in the creek bottom again, but I had to tolerate him grinning at me over the ladle when I offered him water.

I was terribly tired by late afternoon, and at first I didn't notice the long shadow moving in the grass as I was hauling the bucket out. Then I thought maybe it was Joe Franklin. But when I turned to look, I saw a dragon, crawling in the grass toward me.

I saw it for just an instant, so close I could have reached out to steal one of its crest feathers. It was scarlet and gold, with scales on its belly and its long, snake-like neck, and soft down rippling along its wings, which were folded to let it creep along on the claws on its wing tips. Its mouth opened, and I could see rows of long, sharp teeth.

I drew in my breath to scream, turning toward camp hoping to see anyone at all, even Joe Franklin, but my mouth was dry and all that came out was a croak. I turned back and the dragon was gone. Instead, I saw an Indian wearing a dragon-skin cloak, which he slipped off his shoulders and left on the ground at his feet. He took a step forward but held up his empty hands to show he had no weapon. "I won't hurt you," he said in English.

He was tall, as tall as Papa, but not a giant, and his head was shaved except for a bit in the back, and a feather -- one of the dragon feathers -- stuck out of his hair. He wore no shirt, and had designs painted on his face and body. I was so relieved that he was just an Indian, rather than a dragon, that I answered him.

"What do you want?" I said.

"I bring a message for your people," he said. "Will you carry it?"

"Yes," I said.

"We belong to this land. You do not. You need to leave."

I laughed out loud. "They're not going to move the town on my say-so," I said. "The men picked the spot. Do you think they're going to pack up and go back to Ohio?"

"That is my message," he said. "Will you carry it?"

"Yes, but --"

"That's all I ask," he said. He picked up his cloak and walked away, back toward the Osage camp.

I carried my bucket up to our camp -- our town, they said I should call it, but it still looked like a camp. My father and Reverend Dawson were looking over papers again. "Papa?" I said softly, my bucket still in my hands.

"I'm rather busy right now, Hattie."

"There was an Indian at the creek who wanted me to tell you something," I said.

He laid his papers down. "An Indian approached you?" He shot an accusing look at Reverend Dawson.

"Yes, Papa, an Indian man."

"What did he want?"

"He said that he wanted me to carry a message."

"Yes?"

"He said this land is theirs and not ours, and we have to leave."

They burst out laughing and I said, "I told him no one was going to leave. I said. But he said --"

"It's all right, Hattie," Papa said, clapping me on the shoulder. "You did well to come to us. I don't expect you'll see him again, but if you do, tell him my message for his people is that the clever ants are the ones that get out of the way when the buffalo are coming."

I didn't see the Indian again -- at least not right away. But it was clear enough we weren't going anywhere. The Reverend renewed the blessing every night and every morning, and for a time, the building and planting continued undisturbed.

Then one of the men went out hunting and didn't come back. His horse didn't come back, either. He was just gone, vanished into the prairie. Joe Franklin was furious about it; he hadn't even been friends with the man, but kept saying it could have been any of us. He wanted to teach the Indians a lesson.

"You're safe as long as you stay near the town," Reverend Dawson said. "He was probably eaten by a dragon."

"The dragons don't eat anyone the Indians don't tell them to eat," Joe Franklin said. "Everyone knows that."

"We're not strong enough yet to take on the Indians directly," Reverend Dawson said. "Show some patience."

He ordered the men to stay in pairs, when they went out, so they could watch each other's backs. No one else disappeared, and we all relaxed for a bit.

Then the dragon came.

Adeline saw it first -- way, way up in the sky, so high up it was barely a dot. But then it circled down toward us, and first it looked like a bird, and then it looked like a really big bird, and then it was low enough that we could see the sun glint off the scales on its enormous neck. From here, the downy feathers on its wings looked like scales as well, and I tried not to think about the dragon I thought I'd seen down by the creek. This one was a darker red, with glinting orange on its neck. The tips of its wings were yellow.

"It can't come close enough to hurt us," the Reverend Dawson said.

No one was listening. It wasn't exactly that they didn't believe him. It was more that they could see the dragon, and how big it was, and how big its claws were, and how sharp its teeth were. And they couldn't see the magic. Even I couldn't see it, though I knew it was there.

Around and around it circled, lower and lower. It was Adeline who started the panic -- Adeline only ran as far as our wagon, and hid under a blanket, but there were others who started to run, or who grabbed horses and took off at a gallop.

"I can't protect you!" Reverend Dawson shouted. "If you leave the town, God's mercy will not shelter you!"

Mother stood frozen but Papa never doubted. He ran into the wagon to drag Adeline back out. I think he had some idea that if he could force Adeline to calm down, the others who were running away would come back. When Papa brought her out, Reverend Dawson grabbed her around the waist and shouted, "By the Power of Christ's purifying blood, I banish the demon of fear! I banish the demon of panic! I cast out the demon of disobedience . . ."

The dragon swooped down. One of the men from the wagon train must have gotten just far enough on his horse to be outside the protection of the blessing. We saw him when the dragon rose again with the man in its teeth. I could see the man's legs kicking, like a chicken's right after you slaughter it.

"Stop," Adeline screamed. "Make him let me go, he's going to give us all to the dragon," and too late, we all saw a knife in her hand.

We laid Reverend Dawson's body next to the Town of Blessing sign. Mother dosed Adeline with laudanum and left her to sleep in one of the wagons. She'd been mad with fear, Papa said; it wasn't her fault. Perhaps the Indians had bewitched her, which wouldn't be her fault either.

Six of the people from town had run when the dragon came. Three slunk back, quiet and ashamed.

"What are we going to do now?" I asked my father. I could hear the hum of the magic still, but it would fade soon, without Reverend Dawson renewing it. Other wagon trains might be coming, and they surely had magicians of their own, but we'd never last that long.

"We're not going to leave, if that's what you're thinking," Papa said. His arm tightened around me. "We're never going back. This land is ours, now."

"But without the Reverend Dawson --"

"We don't need the Reverend Dawson. We have you."

"Papa, I tried once to do a blessing, on my own. I couldn't do it."

"That's all right," he said. "Wait till tonight. When we bury the Reverend. You'll understand then."

Papa sent me to bed, but then woke me when the moon rose. Mother slept next to Adeline, ready with another dose of her medicines if Adeline stirred. Papa led me out to the Town of Blessing sign, where the Reverend's body still lay. Someone had built a fire, and the men were gathered in a circle.

"What's the girl doing here?" one of the men asked.

"Oh, she belongs here," Joe Franklin said, and grinned. "Unless you want to turn around and go back to Ohio."

"Who has the knife?" Papa asked.

"I've got it." Joe Franklin handed it to Papa. "Did you tell her what's going to happen?"

Papa shook his head. "Sit quietly, Hattie, and do exactly as I tell you." He raised his knife over the Reverend, and then gave me another brief look. "Don't scream," he added.

I covered my mouth with my hands as Papa plunged the knife into the Reverend's chest, used his fingers to crack open his ribs, and carved the heart from his body. Papa laid the heart on a slab of wood and cut it into pieces.

He picked up the first piece, and ate it. Then he speared another piece with the knife, and offered it to Joe Franklin, who stuck it in his mouth and chewed. One by one, every one of the men ate a piece of Reverend Dawson's heart. One piece was left, and Papa picked it up in his fingers. "Open your mouth, Hattie," he said.

"I don't want to," I said, my voice shaking.

"Do you want to be a proper magician, like the Reverend was? Or do you want to be a puny little witch all your life? Eat the heart."

I closed my eyes and bit down. It was salty and tough, and I actually swallowed it without gagging.

When you eat the heart of a magician, some of his power passes to you. In my dreams, Joe Franklin was the one explaining, even though it was my father who told me these things before sending me back to my bed. Of course there are things that make it work better. If you kill the man yourself, for instance. Shame it wasn't you that drove the knife in, if we had to lose the Reverend.

"Why not have Adeline eat it, then?" I asked.

A weak, sniveling, useless little bit like your twin? he said. No, Hattie. If anyone's going to bless the town and have it stick, it's going to be you.

Papa shook me awake at dawn and led me to the Town of Blessing sign. I folded my hands and listened for the magic. Reverend Dawson had always spoken his blessings out loud, but I thought now that wasn't strictly necessary. I closed my eyes and told it to shape itself around us: keep out dragons, keep out Indians, keep out malice and misfortune and everything else Reverend Dawson had mentioned in any of his blessings. I heard it all fall into place like musical notes forming a chord.

There, that's done, I thought, and then looked around at the expectant faces of the men surrounding me. They couldn't hear it. So I cleared my throat and said, "God bless us and keep us safe, for ever and ever, amen."

"Do you think that really worked?" one of the men asked Papa.

"It worked," I said.

Papa gave me an appraising look and said, "I think that should keep us as safe as the Reverend's blessings, yes."

The dragon came again a day later.

It couldn't get through my blessing, any more than it could get through Reverend Dawson's, and this time no one ran away, but it drove Adeline fair mad and Mother had to dose her to make her sleep again. Afterward I saw Mother measure the medicine in the bottle and sigh deeply. "It won't last long, not at this rate," she said to Papa.

I was sitting with Adeline when she woke. "The dragon's gone," I told her as she stirred.

"I hear them laughing," she muttered.

"No one's laughing at you," I said. "They know you're just frightened. But you need to control yourself when it comes next time."

"I hear the dragons when I sleep," Adeline said.

She was hearing my magic, I thought. Even if she didn't want to admit it. "If you just admit you can smell the magic, maybe I can help you," I said.

She came fully awake then and gave me a haughty glare -- her old self again. "You know it's not ladylike to talk about these things," she said.

I sighed and stood up. "I'll send Mother in to sit with you, since you're feeling better," I said.

I sat down outside in the shade, and Papa came to sit beside me. "Tell me again about that Indian you saw," he said.

"He didn't look very old," I said. "He was tall, and had a shaved head with a feather, and he said --"

"I remember what he said. Did he walk right up to you?"

"Yes, by the creek. I turned around and he was standing there." I decided not to mention the dragon. Papa would think I was as crazy as Adeline.

"He must have been their magician," Papa said. "To get through the blessing like that."

"I guess," I said. "Or maybe the Reverend didn't bless the creek that day."

"What was he wearing?"

"A cloak of dragon skin on the top half," I said. "Deerskin on the lower, I think. A loincloth and leg coverings. He had a dragon crest feather in his hair."

Papa nodded. "Some of the men have seen him from a distance. I think it's time we bring him back for another visit."

After I started doing the morning blessing, Papa stopped having me carry water. In fact, everyone wanted me to keep as close to the center of Blessing as possible, and I sat in the shade and watched everyone else work, just like Reverend Dawson had. Even Joe Franklin stopped grinning at me. When he did look at me, which wasn't often, it was with wary respect.

I wondered what would happen when another wagon train arrived. Would their magician take over and send me back to carry water again? Girls could grow up to be witches, but I'd never known a girl to be a proper Minister. Then again, things were different here on the frontier.

For now, at least, I was well-protected. Papa decided I shouldn't even sleep by Adeline anymore, lest she wake up crazed with fear in the night. And yet the Osage sent out their magician like a scout, even after he'd delivered that warning. Surely they knew what would happen.

Surely we should have suspected they knew.

Joe Franklin was in the party that caught him and brought him back. I heard the triumphant shouts as they crossed the boundary into Blessing, and sure enough Joe Franklin and his friends rode straight to me and Papa. Joe Franklin pushed the Indian off his horse so he landed at our feet. They'd bound him, and he landed hard, but made no sound. Papa rolled him onto his back and smiled up at Joe Franklin. "You did well, Franklin," he said. "Is this the Indian you met, Hattie?"

I looked down at him. His face was swelling, where someone had hit him hard, and the dragonskin cloak was gone. "Yes," I said. "I think so."

The Indian kept his eyes closed, but I saw a flicker when he heard my voice.

"We should do it by moonlight," Joe Franklin said, and grinned at my father.

"Of course. I'll keep an eye on him till then," Papa said.

Papa tied him to the Town of Blessing sign, and watched him from the shade just to be sure he didn't get loose.

"What is Joe Franklin going to do?" I asked.

"Franklin's not doing anything, Hattie. It's you who's going to do it," he said. "Remember what I told you about power? You eat his heart, you'll be able to control the dragons, just like he does. Dragons are wild creatures, wilder than wolves. It must be their magic that does it. If we eat his heart and burn his body, we'll steal what we can of his magic and destroy the rest."

His eyes were open now, I realized. He was watching us. He looked very calm for someone hearing about how people were going to eat his heart. "You're saying I need to kill that man and rip his heart out?"

"You need to kill him," Papa said. "I can take out his heart for you, but you should be the one to do the killing. It shouldn't be so hard to eat it afterward. You've done it once now."

Papa sounded perfectly calm about it. I decided I needed to take a walk, and for once, Papa let me go.

Mother was sitting in one of the half-finished houses, making fried bread and jackrabbit stew.

"They brought back the Indian," I said.

"Well, thank goodness," Mother said. "It's a fine thing, don't you think? Should solve a lot of our problems."

"Do you know what Papa wants me to do?" I asked.

Mother sighed deeply. "I wasn't happy when he had you take over for the Reverend. Magic isn't ladylike. I've said it before and I'll say it again. But I don't see as we had much choice. We had to have some sort of protection."

"But now he wants me to --"

"Shhh," she interrupted. "You don't want to disturb your sister. She might get upset." Adeline was sitting in the shade at the back of the house, mending socks. "We're almost out of medicine. I don't know what we're going to do once that's gone. I might not be able to control her, if she tries to run out where the dragon could catch her. If the dragon stops coming -- well, that'll be much better, don't you think?"

"Of course," I said. "Of course I want the dragon to stop coming."

"Well, then you'll need to learn to control it, won't you? It's not as if anyone else here can do it."

Back by the sign, Joe Franklin had taken over guarding the Indian, but he shuffled off a bit when he saw me coming. I sat down in the shade again. The Indianlooked at me and said, "Hello, Hattie."

"How do you know my name?" I asked.

"Your people talk about you. They fear you."

"Joe Franklin is frightened, and that's fine with me."

"Cut me loose," the Indian said. "I can take you to the village of my people. Your sister, too. You can go to the house of the chief and ask for protection and you'llget it. The Osage revere those with your gift, whether they be men or women."

"Or white?"

"I can see your gift around you like the feathers of a bird," he said. "You are already greater than your Reverend ever would have been. You could command the skies and bring rain, you could call the buffalo and the geese, you could tell the fire to return to the earth, if you studied with the Little Old Men and grew to maturity."

"Or I could take the power from you," I said.

"You will regret it," he said.

"How is it you speak English so well?" I asked him. "Did you learn it from eating white magicians?"

"No. For a time I was a scout for a white Army general."

"So you worked for white people but now you've turned against us?"

"You don't belong here," he said. "We do. Listen to me, Hattie. If you don't want to live with my people, persuade yours to turn back. You'll be safe if you're leaving."

"I should persuade people? Why would they listen to me?"

"They have to listen to you. If you refuse to protect them, they'll lose everything."

I strode away angrily and went to walk the borders of the town. The dragon was nowhere to be seen today, but in the waving grasses beyond our border I thought I could smell someone else's magic. Join the Indians? And yet he hadn't answered me when I asked whether they really revered white magicians like their own. This Indian had been a scout for white men -- for years, probably, judging from how well he spoke English. But he'd never truly been one of us, that was obvious, and I'd never truly be one of them either. They might not kill me, if I asked for protection, but I didn't trust his offer one bit.

So then -- go back? Adeline would like nothing better than to return to Ohio where she could forget all about dragons and Indians and the blood-stained dress that Mother had scrubbed but would never be clean. She was the pretty one; she could marry some solid man who would give her the quiet life she needed. Papa would be furious with me, of course. I didn't care to think about that too much.

What would I do in Ohio? Neither clever nor pretty, a magician and a girl, I supposed I could set up shop as a particularly powerful witch. If I had the power in me to learn to command the skies, then surely I could learn to dowse or deliver babies. There was an old lady in Cleveland, she had a very nice house and it wasn't so bad to be on the outskirts of town. I could be the favorite aunt to Adeline's children.

No, I thought. I want the freedom of the frontier. There's nowhere but Blessing that I can be who I am.

It was me and the men, once again, who gathered in the moonlight. Papa took me aside first and showed me a pistol. "I thought this might be easiest for you. Just put it to his head and pull the trigger. I'll take care of the rest."

They'd built up a bonfire nearby. Reverend Dawson's remains had been buried next to the Town of Blessing sign, because some of his magic would linger to protect the town. The Indian's remains would be burned.

My hands were slippery with sweat; I had to keep wiping them on my skirt.

Joe Franklin put a blindfold on the Indian. "Consider yourself lucky," he said to the Indian, loud enough that I could hear him. "They gave Hattie a gun to make it quick. If it were up to me I'd do it with a knife and I'd take my time."

I stared at the Indian from the edge of the circle of firelight. My hands were shaking. Papa put his hand on my shoulder and walked me forward, then placed the pistol in my hand, wrapping my fingers around it. It was cold and smooth, and my hands were shaking, still slippery. As I started to raise the pistol, it slipped and I dropped it. It didn't go off, just hit the ground next to my foot with a thud. I heard the Indian's breath catch. "You still have a choice," he said, very quietly.

I crouched down to pick up the gun. "I think you're going to have to do it," Joe Franklin said to Papa. "I don't think she's got --"

"She'll do it," Papa said.

I picked up the gun, holding it in both hands this time, and looked at the Indian. He stood still, and I thought his eyes, under the blindfold, were open and looking at me. I took a deep breath, then pressed the gun against his head.

The gun didn't slip as I pulled the trigger.

The noise was deafening, and I gasped and stepped back. My hand felt bruised from the gun's recoil, and the Indian's head was nearly gone, reduced to a bloody mess; Joe Franklin had been caught in the spray of his blood, and he wiped it calmly off the side of his face. The Indian's body hung limp, and Papa shouldered me aside to cut him loose and lay him on the ground. He took out the knife. "Wake the women," he said to one of the other men as he worked. "This time everyone eats."

"Even Adeline?"

"No," Papa said. "No, not Adeline. But everyone else."

The women joined the circle as Papa cut the heart into pieces, and I watched as my mother ate a piece, and the other wives. Papa saved the last piece for me. The Reverend's heart had tasted salty and tough, but the Indian's burned like fire in my mouth, and I could barely swallow it. Tears came to my eyes, and I turned away so that no one would think I was crying from fear or sorrow.

"Go to bed, Hattie," Papa said. "We'll take care of the rest of him."

In my sleep, I heard the scream of a thousand dragons, and I looked up to see a vast flock blackening the sky. "Stop," I shouted up at them. "Go away. I can command the skies!" They didn't listen to me.

Instead, they dived down like eagles seeking prey and seized us all. I tried to run, in the dream, but my feet stuck to the ground. I tried to call for help, but the words stuck in my throat. And then dragon claws were tearing into me, and there was nothing I could do, and I thought I would wake, as I'd had enough nightmares to recognize one for what it was, but instead I found myself back on the prairie, looking up at a thousand dragons blackening the sky . . .

And now I heard the war-cry of Indians, and they rode toward us on horseback. "Stop," I shouted, but the hoof-beats shook the ground like an earthquake. I tried to run, but I couldn't, and I tried to call for help, but no sound emerged, and the horses rode over me like grass and I thought I would wake . . .

. . . the fire was coming, it was coming, sweeping through the prairie, burning dry grass, the wall of flame, I could feel the heat of the monster no one could possibly outrun . . .

Where was Adeline? Where was Adeline?

"Wake up! Wake up!"

Adeline was shaking my shoulders, sobbing hysterically.

"Hattie, wake up. Oh, why won't anyone wake up? Wake up," she wailed.

"I'm awake," I muttered, but I wasn't, not really. When I forced my eyes open I could see Adeline's face, but as soon as I closed them the flames roared around me again. The sun scorched my eyes as I opened them; it was broad day, and I needed to renew the blessing. I could hear the magic roaring around me but when I reached for it, it burned me like fire . . .

Where is Adeline? Where? Where?

"I'm right here, Hattie." Adeline's voice was dull and quiet. "I've been right here the whole time."

I opened my eyes and sat up. The dreams were gone. I was damp, and my mouth felt coarse and sticky. It was dark, and no fire burned. I could make out the town around me in the moonlight, but only just.

"I'm all right," I said to Adeline, sitting up. "I'm myself -- what happened?"

"I woke up four days ago," Adeline said. "And everyone was asleep. You, Papa, Mother . . . everyone but me. When I tried to wake up Papa, he thrashed and shouted about dragons. Mother was the same. And you. And everyone. I've been waiting and waiting for the Indians to come and finish us off, but they haven't . . ."

"Can I have something to drink?" I croaked, and Adeline burst into tears and handed me a ladle. I drank deeply.

"I sat by you," Adeline said, "because you were the only one I could get to take water at all. Sometimes you'd wake up just a little, and I could make you swallow some. Mother -- Papa --"

"Well, maybe they'll wake now," I said cheerfully, and tried to stand. My legs didn't want to obey me. "Can you help me up?"

Adeline shook her head. "They're all gone," she said. "I couldn't make them drink, and in the sun . . . they're all dead, Hattie. Mother, Papa, Joe Franklin, everyone but you and me."

The Indian magician came at dawn. She was an old woman, old enough to be a grandmother, and when I smelled her magic I thought she could probably command the skies, the winds, the buffalo herds, and the dragons.

"You were warned," she said.

"Yes," I said.

"You made your choice."

There wasn't much point in arguing. "Adeline didn't," I said.

"That's true," she said. "Your sister can remain with us. She will be safe here, and can rest and recover. If she chooses to return to your people in a year or two, we will guide her back."

"What about me?" I asked.

"We gave you a message," she said. "The man you murdered, Sees-Far, gave you a message. We belong to this land. Your people do not. We're sending you back with that message. Give it to the rest of your people."

"What if they don't listen?"

"Then perhaps they will eat your poisoned heart, and suffer your fate."

I still hear the dragons in my dreams. Sometimes they speak to me in Sees-Far's voice. Sometimes they speak to me in Adeline's; sometimes they say nothing I can understand. They no longer eat me, night after night. Only sometimes.

In these dreams, the power I ripped from Sees-Far rises up around me like a prairie fire: wild, powerful, and utterly beyond my control. I wonder sometimes what this power would have felt like if I'd freed Sees-Far and gone to his people to ask for protection. If I'd asked to learn, instead of trying to swallow him up.

Oh, I've asked for forgiveness. I've asked for comfort; I've asked for release. So far, all have been denied me.

Perhaps, my friend, you would like to take this burden from me. You could bind me, wait for darkness, devour my heart and with it the power I can neither use nor bear. Perhaps it was not the great power of the Osage, but my own weakness that led to what happened at Blessing Creek. You are strong; you are clever; you are confident. Maybe you could eat my heart and my power and turn it back against the ones that Sees-Far sacrificed himself to protect.

Or perhaps you will listen, as I did not.

If you are wise, friend, you will turn back here.


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